All photographs by Nadja Wohlleben

Powerful Photographs Challenging Gender Roles in an Indian Martial Arts School

Photographer Nadja Wohlleben's new series 'A Sword & A Sari' explores self-defense and female empowerment in the Republic of India

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Jun 28 2018, 7:21pm

All photographs by Nadja Wohlleben

Meenakshi Raghavan is a Gurukkhal, which means she is a master of the South Indian martial art Kalaripayattu. The 76-year-old has been teaching fighting techniques for 69 years. Her school is called Kadathanad Kalari Sangham. It is located in a small village in Kerala, India and boasts more than 150 students of all ages and genders.

In January 2017, Raghavan received the Padma Shri award, one of the highest civilian honors in the Republic of India, for her lifelong commitment to Kalaripayattu. Since then, she has been celebrated as a national hero and is frequently invited to speak at events. In these talks, Raghavan promotes Kalaripayattu as a way for women to challenge gender roles and fight against sexual violence.

Raghavan's mission of combating violence against women is incredibly important in India, where recent stories of rape in cities like Kathua and Unnao have garnered global outrage. Statistics aren't perfect at gauging exactly how prevalent sexual violence is in India because it is believed that crimes against women are widely underreported. So while India's National Crime Records Bureau has said that in recent years the country has averaged four reported rapes an hour, this staggering stat is likely just a small snapshot of the abuse suffered by Indian women. The situation is so bad that a new survey of experts by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Reuters philanthropic organization, named India the most dangerous country in the world for women.

Due to the threat of violence facing women, an increasing number of parents are allowing their daughters to train Kalaripayattu. These days, women and girls make up one third of Meenakshi’s students.

Meenakshi Raghavan presents her 'Padma Shri' award.
Meenakshi Raghavan is greeted by a parade in her honor as she attends a sports competition at Perambra Higher Secondary School. Raghavan was invited to speak at the event. During her speech she encourages all females to practice Kalaripayattu to be able to defend themselves.
Meenakshi Raghavan poses for snapshots with fans. She is a role model and an inspiration for young women.
Meenakshi Raghavan shows her Sari collection to her grand-children Lena (C), 14, and Jithin (R), 27. When Meenakshi was a young woman, she owned only four Saris and dreamt of owning a variety, she recalls. Nowadays, she has more Saris than she can count. She always wears a Sari, even when practicing Kalaripayattu.
One of many trophies that were given to Meenakshi rests on a window sill in her house.
Meenakshi's grandchildren (FL) Ninu, 32, Lena, 14, Milind, 21, Jaimi, 23, and her sons Sajeev, 53, and Pradeep, 52, perform the Hindu Śrāddha ritual in honor of Meenakshi's late husband, Raghavan. (Tradition forbids the wife to attend to this ritual). Raghavan was Meenakshi’s martial arts master. When he passed away in 2010, she took over his legacy. The entire family continues to practice Kalaripayattu in the temple that Raghavan built.

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